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Irfan Ali Khan Designs a Mental Health Chatbot – Zazy

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Irfan Ali Khan Designs a Mental Health Chatbot – Zazy

December 13
08:48 2021

People like uplifting stories. It gives them hope, it energizes them to work on their own life problems, to dig a little deeper and push a little further. The trouble with depression, however, is that those stories tend to have little impact. Living in a world that is flooded with anxiety, negative outlooks and the toxic positivity of outdated workplace culture and social media — it is difficult to find the wherewithal to make healthy choices, because in those moments of choice it feels impossible to understand what is healthy and what is not. Through all of these personal experiences with depression comes a chatbot called Zazy, which is specifically designed to help its creator Irfan Ali Khan feel a little less lonely, a little less anxious, and a lot more authentic in those crucial moments in life.

Taking life one step at a time. That is Irfan’s new mission, after suffering through a number of years of unexpected calamity. An up and coming star in Silicon Valley, Irfan had transitioned from his PhD in quantum information into research on early stage skin cancer diagnostics at Bio-X at Stanford University. Everything seemed to be going according to plan, as far as anyone could tell. Behind the scenes however, was another story; one involving an ongoing fight with depression and post-traumatic-stress disorder.

Zazy is available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.

Irfan’s first postdoctoral position at Stanford had started exceptionally well, and yet when depression struck, Irfan found that his advisor had very little to offer in the way of support or wellbeing of this postdoc. Learning not to trust the workplace was the result, leading to a nightmarish existence in Silicon Valley, a place known for anti-social behavior and a dystopian economic system. Then, Irfan’s mother was struck with a neurodegenerative disease that would tear apart his immediate family; and add to this a gym injury resulting in chronic back pain. It was during these moments of despair that Irfan learned to accept that there was little room for physicists in Silicon Valley, and he must learn software engineering to survive.

Irfan decided to throw himself into machine learning, with the blind faith that the efforts would pay off somewhere down the line. While having no application for the diagnosis or therapeutics of his mother’s disease, Irfan decided to pivot his AI project towards anti-depression after his mother died in 2019. And thus was born Zazy, an unassuming chatbot with the simple job of responding to the user with relevant, cheeky and uplifting responses. Surprising to Irfan, the simple idea worked wonders for his anxiety, allowing him to sleep through the night, and perform daily tasks which otherwise seemed crippling. He now explores avenues to share his work on Zazy with a larger community of people, and hopefully help reduce their anxiety and loneliness in this ever individualistic world, which has been exacerbated by the post-pandemic isolation. “After much thought, I named the chatbot Zazy,” said Irfan, “because I don’t just want people to feel OK about life, I want them to feel … zazy!”

Irfan is proud of his work on Zazy, and though is by no means depression free, is able to enjoy simple things in life again, like a movie or a song. He was able to complete painful physiotherapy to heal his back. Irfan was able to receive a full scholarship to Draper University — Tim Draper’s premiere pre-accelerator in Silicon Valley – which afterwards propelled him to expand Zazy’s platform from iOS to Android, and leveling up the backend AI engine to increase bandwidth for a larger user base. If we can take any lesson away from Irfan, it is to never give up in life, and to use every tool at our disposal to move our personal story forward.

Zazy is available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.

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